Is she a lifesaver . . . or your worst nightmare? Does she want to help you . . . or replace you?
Is she Mary Poppins . . . or Peyton Flanders?
The image of the nanny has undergone a 1990s revision with "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," a movie that was released on Friday and instantly shot to No. 1 in box office returns. The movie features a bad nanny (Peyton, played by Rebecca De Mornay) who insidiously works her way into a family's intimacies, literally trying to steal the children and husband of the good mommy (Claire Bartel, played by Annabella Sciorra) who hired her.
"It's hitting a raw nerve," said Karen Stoddard, who is chairman of communication arts at the College of Notre Dame and recently taught a course on the image of women in movies. "It's tapping into this whole fear about day care, and the guilt women feel about leaving their kids with someone else.
"I went to see it Sunday afternoon, at Security Square, and it was packed with mainly adults -- a nice, suburban crowd," said Ms. Stoddard. "But in the end, when [Claire] goes to punch [Peyton] in the nose, there was such a catharsis. The person behind me, a woman, said, 'Yeah, kill the bitch!' "
The movie is not only drawing crowds and their dollars -- $7.7 million last weekend -- but also controversy. Film critics have dubbed it "Fetal Attraction," for its similarity to "Fatal Attraction," in which another good mother triumphs over an evil outsider trying to break up her family. But, while "Fatal Attraction" plays on the fear of losing your husband to his one-night stand, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" plays on the fear of losing your entire family to the woman with whom you've entrusted your children -- the nanny.
Those in the nanny business, naturally, decry this movie image, especially as it comes close on the heels of a highly publicized crime last month in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., in which a Swiss nanny was accused of killing the 3-month-old child in her care by setting fire to her employers' home while they were at work. (Olivia Riner, 20, of Wettingen, Switzerland, was arraigned on murder and arson charges, and her case is pending.)
"It's fiction. It's a thriller. But I think there are fears out there especially following what happened in New York," said Dorothy Carroll, director of operations for A Choice Nanny, a referral business based in Columbia, with more than 20 franchises in nine states.
But she and Jackie Clark, the company founder, said the nanny-client relationship can indeed be a problematic one. Which is why they tell families never to do what the Bartels do in the movie: hire a nanny apparently without checking her background.
(Peyton, it turns out, is the widow of a doctor who committed suicide after Claire and other women publicly accused him of sexually molesting them during gynecological exams. Peyton also suffered a miscarriage and had to have a hysterectomy after the suicide -- the "motivation" that the filmmakers give her for trying to steal Claire's family.)
Ms. Clark said only 20 percent of her company's referrals are for nannies who live in with the client family.
"We find there are too many problems with live-in arrangements," she said. "You take a new mom, she has a new adjustment with her body, a new adjustment with her employer, a new adjustment with her husband and you add a new adjustment with a nanny on top of that. Who needs it?"
The new film has made at least one enemy among those who have first-hand experience with the subject: Marguerite Jackson, 34, a real-life nanny in Columbia who recently checked out Hollywood's portrayal of her profession.
"Disgusting," was her reaction. "I love these children, but when Mrs. Daniels comes home, I leave them to her.
"Maybe it's because I'm a mother myself," said Ms. Jackson, who for about two years has cared for the two Daniels children during the day but returns to her own home and 14-year-old son at night. "The bond between the mother and child -- no one can get through that."
Arvil Daniels, a self-employed photographer, and his wife, Judith Cappello, a podiatrist, have had nannies for their children, now 6 1/2 and 3 1/2 , throughout their young lives.
Mr. Daniels said his former work in personnel was excellent training for the screening he and his wife have conducted with prospective nannies. One woman faked a referral letter from a former employer, and others didn't answer his sometimes personal questions to his satisfaction. "Sometimes you just get a feel for a problem," he said.
Still, he said, he wouldn't consider a live-in nanny because of the intrusion in the family's privacy, although his wife was more open to that.
The right client-nanny match is the key, Ms. Clark of A Choice Nanny said. Different families want different things in a nanny.
"For every family where the woman wants to pick a not-so-attractive nanny, there are an equal number who want an attractive nanny," she said. "Maybe they ski in Vail. They don't want someone out of line with how they look. It's the same reason why you might want a very attractive house."
In the movie, Claire's best friend tells her that she should never have let an attractive woman like Peyton into her house in a "power" position. It turns out she was right -- by the movie's end, Claire and Peyton are in a life-and-death battle over the family, the under-the-surface, emotional power play of earlier stages of the movie having turned into an all-out physical brawl.
This woman-vs.-woman fight is why the movie has drawn particular wrath from feminists.
Susan Faludi, whose book "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" argues that the media are part of a subtle effort to undermine the gains of working women, recently told the New York Times that the new nanny movie continues Hollywood's portrayal of women as "either compliant, beautiful wives, and therefore the good woman; or . . . a seething monster, a witch, who inserts herself in the family manse and tries to destroy the family."
Ms. Stoddard of Notre Dame agrees.
"It's pitting woman against woman, and the good mother has to save the family," Ms. Stoddard said. "It's the virgin-whore dichotomy. You're one or the other, and you have to be punished if you're bad."